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Starry Night

New York
Metropolitan Opera
03/15/2009 -  
Operatic arias, ensembles and scenes by Georges Bizet (Carmen), Charles Gounod (Faust), Erich Wolfgang Korngold (Die tote Stadt), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Don Giovanni – Die Zauberflöte), Modest Mussorgsky (Boris Godunov), Giacomo Puccini (La Fanciulla del West – Gianni Schicchi – Tosca – Turandot), Richard Strauss (Der Rosenkavalier), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (The Queen of Spades), Giuseppe Verdi (Aida – La Traviata – Otello – Rigoletto – Simon Boccanegra – Nabucco), and Richard Wagner (Parsifal – Das Rheingold – Siegfried)
Plácido Domingo (Otello, Simon Boccanegra, Parsifal, Dick Johnson), Roberto Alagna (Don José, Faust), Aleksandrs Antonenko (Cavaradossi), Kim Begley (Loge), Stephanie Blythe (Amneris), Joseph Calleja (Rodolfo), Natalie Dessay (Violetta), Lisette Oropesa (Sophie, Rhinemaiden), Renée Fleming (Marietta), Juan Diego Flórez (Duke), Angela Gheorghiu (Marguerite, Amelia), Marcello Giordani (Calaf), Maria Guleghina (Aida), Thomas Hampson (Amfortas), Ben Heppner (Siegfried), Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Yeletsky), Maija Kovalevska (Lauretta), Mariusz Kwiecien (Don Giovanni), Kate Lindsey (Rhinemaiden), Waltraud Meier (Carmen), Susanne Mentzer (Octavian), James Morris (Philip II, Wotan), Tamara Mumford (Rhinemaiden),Yvonne Naef (Fricka), Sondra Radvanovsky (Marguerite), John Relyea (Méphistophélès), Garrett Sorenson (Froh), John Tomlinson (Boris), Deborah Voigt (the Marschallin, Brünnhilde)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Donald Palumbo (Chorus Master), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, James Levine (Conductor)
Phelim McDermott (Director), Julian Crouch (Associate Director and Set Designer), Catherine Zuber (Costume Designer), Peter Mumford (Lighting Designer), Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer for Fifty-Nine Productions, Ltd. (Video Design), Scott Lehrer (Sound Design)

(© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Celebrating anniversaries is one way that we honor the past. The landmarks of memory are recalled with gratitude for the good times, and nostalgia for those we love who are now gone, and much missed. Last night’s gala marking the 125th anniversary of the Metropolitan Opera and the 40th anniversary of the debut at the house of Plácido Domingo did all of those things. And more. It was first and foremost, a showcase for magnificent singers and an orchestra and chorus to match. The Old Met, which opened in 1883, was demolished in 1966, the same year that the new house opened. But with imagination, scrupulous archival research, and technical wizardry, the production team made the Met’s history, the performers who made that history, and even the old hall itself, come back to life before our eyes, with a beautiful projection of its famous proscenium arch framing the action.

It is both the charm and the challenge of opera that it is such a collaborative enterprise. Along with the obvious heroes and heroines of successful productions – the singers, conductor, orchestra, and chorus – there is a large contingent working behind the scenes, using all their creative and logistical talents to make manifest the magic that is opera at its best. Surely, no challenge was ever more daunting to this cast of hundreds than that presented by the Met’s General Manager, Peter Gelb. He wanted to stage a gala in keeping with his goal that the Met’s productions be as dramatically compelling as they are musically distinguished. An old style gala with singers in formal dress, filing on and off the stage, simply would not do. Instead, the audience was treated to 26 staged excerpts from 23 operas, sung by 29 superb singers, all within a four-hour time frame. It would have been impossible to assemble such an enterprise with conventional staging. Time and logistics would not have permitted it. Instead, the staging was evocative in character, accomplished through projections on scrims and on screens that moved up and down as requirements dictated. This was not technical wizardry for wizardry’s sake. But it was certainly a tour de force that left the audience alternately dazzled and delighted. And it was also true to history.

Every excerpt referenced a prior production, including performances that were legendary and historically significant. In December, 1903, the Met presented the first staged performance of Parsifal to take place outside of Bayreuth. Both the set and costumes for last evening’s excerpt were based on that production. The set was an exquisite tableau, with monks arrayed in front of the columned choir of a cathedral, with its dome rising into seemingly infinite space. Never did salvation take on a more appropriate form. The staging for the excerpt from La Fanciulla del West was based on a famous black and white photograph from the world premiere in 1910. The photograph showed Caruso, tied to a tree, with a rope around his neck, surrounded by the most Italian looking cowboys I have ever seen. The Met’s magicians colored the photograph and brought it to life, with the only addition on stage being Plácido Domingo standing in Caruso’s place. Many of the costumes had historical resonance. Juan Diego Flórez’s costume was based on one Caruso wore in 1903; Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s gold jacket and breeches were inspired by a 1910 production, also the US premiere, of The Queen of Spades; Natalie Dessay’s gorgeous deep red gown was modeled on one worn by Bidu Sayao in the Met’s 1937 production of La Traviata.

The evening began with a projected image of a newspaper announcing the opening of the Metropolitan Opera, featuring Faust, sung in Italian. Four excerpts followed, this time, sung in French. One can only wonder at the reaction of that first night audience – who had marveled at the ingenious gas chandelier that graced the hall – to the technological marvels on offer last evening. During the fourth excerpt, a trio, sung by Roberto Alagna, Sondra Radvanovsky, and John Relyea, a projection provided the vantage point of a box at the old house, with two figures in period dress. The image homed in on three angels floating over Marguerite as she died. Then, to loud applause, those angels were transformed into flesh and blood angels suspended behind a scrim, who seemed to be pulling up the set for the next excerpt. Similarly, if less spectacularly, as Natalie Dessay ended her aria from La Traviata, she and her staging disappeared upward as the set for Domingo’s Otello excerpt came into view from below. Sets were not only shifted up and down but also round and round. There were a few creaks and groans and short pauses as the staging was assembled for the following scenes, but the stagecraft was in every way remarkable. That there were no major glitches is a tribute to the backstage crew who made things flow superbly.

Plácido Domingo was very much the star of a show with many high-powered stars. In all four excerpts, he was in splendid voice. As he sang in Parsifal, in particular, the years seemed to melt away. His acting was marvelous as was his willingness to physically embody his roles. As Otello, he flung his body down onto the stage and later crawled up the steps. And, in Simon Boccanegra, he employed his darkening voice to stunning effect in a baritone role that he will assume at the Met next season. The ovation he received – by the audience and by his colleagues – was richly deserved.

In a duet from Aida, with Maria Guleghina, the marvelous Stephanie Blythe sang the part of Amneris, a role she will assume at the Met in the 2011-2012 season. She sang with unforced power and a beautiful rich tone. Just a day before, I had seen her exhibit an impeccable instinct for physical comedy as the sorceress in Rusalka. There seems to be no role she cannot inhabit. Baritone, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, gave an enthralling account of Yeletsky’s aria from The Queen of Spades. There was also a tongue in cheek allusion to the famous Three Tenors, with three tenor arias by Puccini sung by Joseph Calleja, newcomer Aleksandrs Antonenko (who made his Met debut just six days previously as the prince in Rusalka), and Marcello Giordani. Each of them sang beautifully and movingly, but for me, the most compelling performance was Calleja’s. His voice had a purity and sweetness that was just enchanting. Natalie Dessay as Violetta (a role she will assume next season), was lovely – her coloratura perfect, her tone pure and bell-like, and her acting psychologically compelling.

Missing and very much missed was René Pape, who was ill and forced to withdraw. After reading about his magnificent portrayal of Boris, first in Berlin and then in Dresden, I had been looking forward to hearing him preview the role he will take on at the Met in the 2010-2011 season. On extremely short notice, he was replaced by Sir John Tomlinson, who has made specialty of rescuing opera companies in distress (He stepped in at Covent Garden and did three complete cycles of The Ring, after Bryn Terfel suddenly withdrew.) He has also made a specialty of Boris. His portrayal was beautifully sung, brilliantly acted, and deeply affecting.

The Met Orchestra, under the baton of James Levine, played superbly, giving a particularly distinguished performance in the Strauss and Wagner excerpts. The chorus was in terrific form. Their performance of Verdi’s sublime "Va, pensiero", was magisterial. Whenever I hear this beautiful music, I am reminded that the people of Milan, who lined the streets for Verdi’s funeral, sang it spontaneously, as his coffin passed them by.

The last selection on the program was the final scene from Das Rheingold, with costume designs based on the Met’s 1889 production. One by one, the gods strode off the stage, leaving it empty, and as the music swelled to its rapturous conclusion, photographs of dozens of the Met’s great stars of the past were projected onto a screen, to tumultuous applause.
Valhalla is where they were, and Valhalla is where they surely belong.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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